Monday, July 25, 2011

Exploring the Miller Street Tunnel

In the second decade of the 1900s Jefferson City’s population was increasing, cars had replaced wagons and buggies, and a beautiful new state Capitol was under construction. The city’s progressive leadership saw the opportunity to make radical changes in what we call today the city’s “infrastructure.”

One of the major infrastructural improvements was to “reclaim” the low ground along the east branch of Wears Creek in the heart of the city. Development had lagged in that low ground, which consisted basically of the three square blocks bounded by McCarty on the north, Miller on the south, Washington on the east, and Walnut on the west. These blocks are now occupied by the proposed convention center, the Capitol Plaza Hotel, and parking lots, with the elevated Whitton Expressway on the south edge. These blocks included some substantial buildings, but they were dominated by unpainted frame houses and outbuildings—some of them ramshackle and some were former slave cabins—and they were an eyesore, especially lying in the heart of the city.

The east branch of Wear’s Creek made two big loops through these blocks, which cut up the surface into pieces. The plan was to get rid of the big loops by straightening the creek channel. This would open up those low-lying blocks to modern housing and development. The plan, it should be noted, was not to manage creek flooding but to reclaim land for development.

Channel straightening was done ca. 1913–1915 by putting the creek into a straight canal with concrete floor and sides and putting a concrete Miller Street on top, which made it a straight, box-shaped tunnel. It stretched for 2½ blocks from the 200 block of West Miller (on the east side of present Zesto’s at Broadway) to its junction with the main branch of Wears Creek at Walnut Street. A section of the concrete tunnel ceiling collapsed ca. 1923 in front of where the Mediterranean Plaza is today and had to be replaced.

Otherwise, the original tunnel is still there today nearly a century later, hidden under Miller Street and parallel to the south side of Whitton Expressway. It carries the full discharge of the creek.

Though the city fathers built the tunnel to carry creek water, we neighborhood boys thought it was built for us to play in. Without any barricades on its ends or even any “keep out” or “danger” signs, the tunnel was an open invitation for young boys to explore.

To enter the tunnel in the 1940s we grade-school-age kids skittered down the dirt bank at the tunnel entrance where Miller Street now dead-ends just east of Zesto. The tunnel is ten feet high and twenty feet wide, which is the width of Miller Street on top. To us kids it was big and roomy. We entered when the creek was just a little stream of water flowing on one side or the other of the floor. We usually didn’t tell our mothers what we were doing, because we would think of doing it on the spur of the moment, but they probably knew anyway. Mothers know a lot of things by intuition. Older boys warned us about wild animals in the tunnel, like skunks and snakes and even monsters. They said there were dead bodies of hoboes trapped in the dark tunnel, but we weren’t fazed. Neither were we fazed by the hundreds of bats we saw coming and going in the evenings.

In earlier times, building foundations, retaining walls, and creek bridges in Jefferson City were built of quarried stone, but by the time the tunnel was built in the 1910s poured concrete using wood forms had become the way to build retaining walls. The walls and flat bottom of the tunnel were very coarse concrete, but the floor was layered in places with washed-in creek gravel that made footing tricky in the darkness. Occasionally we had to pick our way through brush and small tree branches, but mostly the tunnel was swept clear of debris. (In those days there was no trash in the creek, because there were no plastic grocery sacks, plastic bottles or cups, aluminum cans, or Styrofoam.) We were always hoping to find some treasure with our flashlights, but we never found anything that we couldn’t have found on the city streets above ground. Not even a dead cat.

Once inside and away from the entrance, the tunnel was pitch black just like a real cave. We could barely see the opening at the far end as a small spot of light, two and a half blocks straight ahead, and it served as a goal. Every hundred feet or so we could see some indirect light coming in through the storm drains in the Miller Street gutters. When we passed under the drains, we thought: What if a storm happened while we were inside the tunnel? The rush of water would sweep us through the tunnel and on out into the Missouri River clear down to St. Louis, and we’d be goners for sure! Such thoughts didn’t last long because we had to pay attention to our footing on the rocks and gravel that we could hardly see with our small flashlights.

Naturally, there were places where we couldn’t stay on the concrete or gravel, so we slogged on through water a few inches deep with the pants legs of our overalls rolled up. Our flashlights picked out bats on the ceiling, but not enough of them to bother us and we didn’t do anything to bother them. The bats we saw in the tunnel during the daytime were probably the same ones we saw in our back yards on Elm Street in the evening.

On most tunnel expeditions we didn’t go all the way to the end at Walnut Street. We got too bored going so slowly and seeing too much of the same stuff in the first block or so. Actually, we didn’t know exactly where we were, except by comparing distances to the opening in front of us with the opening behind us.

We had heard there was a huge drop-off at the far end where the concrete tunnel emptied into the main branch of Wears Creek and that we would fall into it and drown, just as Columbus was told he was going to do when he set out sailing across the ocean. The first time we reached the end we found no drop-off, but a continuation at the same level, except it was thick, gooey mud instead of the clean gravel in the tunnel. Periodic flushing of the tunnel by heavy rains kept the tunnel free of mud. No one wanted to walk in deep, sticky mud, so we backtracked.

When we got home, Mom looked at our wet leather shoes and flashlights and asked us where we had been–as if she didn’t know–and we casually said, “Oh, in the tunnel.” She didn’t make any fuss about it. She knew how young boys liked to spend their time exploring.

Copyright 2011 by Walter A. Schroeder.


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